Under, Over, Through: Crossing the US-Mexico Border Fence

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A new short film “Does the Wall Work?” answers its own question, compiling arresting footage of migrants and traffickers breaching the U.S.-Mexico border fence, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The flood of images, many of them collected from previously avaliable clips, show tiny figures vaulting, digging, sawing and sprinting in their efforts to get past the U.S. border defenses, calling attention to the ineffectiveness of the 700 miles of fence that cut through the southwest.

The footage also depicts some of the innovative methods adopted by drug traffickers to movie their product north, from puppies and pigeons trained to carry contraband, to tunnels stretching under the border, to a giant catapult used to fling marijuana over the wall. The film also namechecks semi-submersible vessels, an increasingly popular method of transporting drugs past coast guard patrols. Less common is a surfer who tried to sneak drugs into the U.S. by taping them to his body.

The clip, released by the makers of 2009 documentary The Wall, highlights the continued vulnerability of the U.S.’s southwest border to penetration by organized crime, as well as the persistence of those trying to get past its defenses.

In highlighting the failure of border patrol efforts to deter people from trying to enter the U.S., with shots of would-be immigrants squashed painfully into car trunks, and even one disguised as a car seat, the film also serves as a reminder of the heavy price paid by many of those who try to make the crossing.

With heightened U.S. efforts to guard the most popular, and easiest, entry points, migrants coming up from Mexico are increasingly forced to travel through more remote, less patrolled regions. As InSight has reported, these unsecured areas include rough terrain such as the Marfa and Rio Grande parts of the border.

This increases the costs and risks for migrants, with increasing numbers dying from exposure in harsh desert terrain where it is easy to lose your way. A 2009 study by U.S. and Mexican civil rights groups estimated that more than 5,000 had died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since 1994, when one of the first stretches of fence was constructed.

The shift into more rural areas has also increased the involvement of criminal groups in moving illegal immigrants across the border. To cross these areas, often stretches of desert, requires knowledgeable guides, resulting in the professionalization of human trafficking into a business. And it is a business increasingly co-opted by drug-trafficking groups looking to complement their criminal portfolio.

An Office of Homeland Security working paper from 2010 detailed the rise in the involvement of dedicated smugglers in border crossings, finding that up to 95% of migrants used such guides in 2006.

Along this growing use of paid guides have come Mexican drug-trafficking organizations such as the Zetas. Scenting profits, these groups have moved in to get their cut of the trafficking business, levying taxes on migrants who move through their territory.

This increased involvement of criminal groups presents its own dangers to the migrants. Groups who try to make the trip alone, or whose guides fail to pay the correct fee, can be preyed upon by criminal gangs. In one particularly gruesome case, 72 people trying to make it to the U.S. were found dead in August 2010 on a ranch in Tamaulipas, 90 miles from the Texas border. The massacre was attributed to the Zetas, who had reportedly kidnapped the migrants and tried to force them to work for the cartel.

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